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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to question during the closing news conference at the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 30, 2022.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds himself in an awkward position that could soon become more awkward still.

His assurances that the federal government is fully committed to properly sustaining Canada’s armed forces were rudely contradicted last week by a Pentagon document obtained by the Washington Post.

The document stated that Mr. Trudeau had told NATO officials Canada would never meet its commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, a level all NATO countries agreed in 2014 to strive to meet. (As an aside, never say never, Prime Minister.)

The document cited growing impatience by the United States and other NATO allies with Canada’s unwillingness to do its share in collective defence. That impatience risks becoming public in July, when NATO heads of government meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, to discuss plans for the decade ahead.

NATO leaders are certain to ask Mr. Trudeau why he has no intention of meeting even the minimum target to which Canada is publicly committed, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

We believe Mr. Trudeau should answer, emphatically, that Canada will meet the 2-per-cent target, and that a path to making good on this commitment will be in the next federal budget.

Critics of the 2-per-cent target maintain the figure is arbitrary. But so is a speed limit of 100 kilometres an hour. In both cases, that goal lays out a path to something vital: safe highway driving, or a defence capacity adequate to Canada and NATO’s needs. And, it must be said, Canada has agreed to this goal; our word should mean something.

In any case, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg believes 2 per cent should be regarded as a floor, not a ceiling, for defence spending. NATO’s heads of government may agree with him in July, leaving Canada falling even further behind.

The issue has become so pressing that the Conference of Defence Associations Institute recently released a letter signed by more than 60 former defence ministers, premiers and other politicians – both Liberal and Conservative – as well as chiefs of the defence staff and other senior officials, calling on the federal government to “act with a sense of urgency” to meet the 2-per-cent floor.

This debate is anything but academic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that Moscow considers all borders temporary, with its eye on recreating a Greater Russia that once again dominates Eastern Europe. Canada leads a battle group in Latvia, not far from the Russian frontier.

Eastern Europe is not the only arena. North America’s air defences are inadequate and out of date. Canada has committed to spend $4.9-billion over six years to help upgrade NORAD. But the Americans would like to see some of that money now, please, with more to follow swiftly.

And Canada could become involved in a third strategic challenge: containing China. We seek to expand trade ties in the Indo-Pacific region, but unless this country is prepared to contribute to collective defence – especially the defence of Taiwan – we simply won’t be taken seriously. As we have argued before, a modernized submarine fleet needs to be part of that renewed commitment to the Western military alliance.

It would take an additional $21-billion annually for Canada to reach its 2 per cent of GDP defence commitment. That’s a large number. But it’s also less than the $27.2-billion by which federal spending for fiscal 2024 increased between last year’s budget and this year’s. This government simply isn’t prepared to sacrifice other priorities over spending on defence.

When pressed, the Liberals say they cannot commit to new spending until an ongoing defence review is completed. But the government has delayed that report by expanding public consultation. Enough; fast track the defence review.

At the NATO meeting in July, promise that Canada will reach the 2-per-cent floor within a specified (and short) number of years. That would be a dramatic shift in spending priorities, and one that would require the Prime Minister to make a convincing case to the Canadian public.

Mr. Trudeau should do so; it is his job. That is the test of effective leadership: to turn never into perhaps, and perhaps into concrete action.

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